Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.
As two of this year’s nine Kate B. Reynolds Schweitzer Fellows, Julius Kibe and Caroline Njogu have spent the past several months working to address health disparities in North Carolina’s African refugee population. Partnering with the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, the Duke School of Nursing (Kibe) and North Carolina Central University School of Administration (Njogu) students launched the JENGA initiative—a lay health advisor program focusing on diabetes and hypertension education.
And in doing so, they’ve had a unique support system: each other. Kibe and Njogu are married—and they’ve found that when it comes to their Schweitzer project, they make a great team.
“Working on the project with my husband has been a very good experience, especially because we tend to focus on the project from our interests,” Njogu says. “Julius focused on developing the curriculum and teaches the classes. I am in administration—therefore, I get to do the role-play sessions with the participants and the administrative work.”
“Sometimes it is not easy,” Njogu adds, “but we have learned to encourage each other.”
Read on for our interview with Njogu, and check back next week for our interview with Kibe.
Why did you decide to develop your particular project?
I saw a need in the community among the immigrant/refugee population, especially because of their life changes upon arrival to the United States. They are expected to adapt to a new way of life, become accustomed to the American system, and learn a new language.
I first got the idea [to develop this project] when we interacted with some refugees who had just arrived in the U.S. In spite of all the assistance they had received, they were still experiencing some difficulty in accessing some services. Language is a huge barrier for immigrants/refugees when it comes to accessing care—thus, the need for language education and interpreters. We decided to reach this population; educate them in the areas of access to health care, diabetes and hypertension; and in turn they become a resource to others in the community.
What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
Because of the need for education in this refugee community, we hope that those who become lay health educators through the JENGA Initiative will become educators for the community. I hope that many other people will receive assistance through the lay health educators, and that this peer education model will be implemented in other parts of the country as well. These peer education services are needed in communities to support the education that immigrants/refugees receive after they arrive in the U.S.
What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
The rise in chronic disease deaths around the world is alarming. Most of these premature deaths are due to poor dietary habits and physical inactivity. According to World Health Organization (WHO), conditions including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity, cancer and respiratory diseases now account for 59% of the 57 million deaths annually and 46% of the global burden of disease.
Most chronic disease risk factors (such as inactivity, diet, smoking, and alcoholism) are largely preventable, but other factors such as socioeconomic status and culture influence the food different people eat. Through education and promotion of preventive measures, this issue can be addressed. Promoting proper diet, physical activity, no smoking and alcohol education, communities will be able to discern these bad habits and adopt good ones, thus improving lives.
What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?
That anything small you do is going to make lasting impact in other people’s lives. Take, for example, the population that the JENGA initiative is serving: participants are vested in learning about chronic disease prevention and access to health care so that they can educate others. I did not expect such interest when we begun, but it has been a wonderful learning experience for me too.
What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?
It means that I get to be a member of an organization of professionals and students who are committed to working for the underserved people in our communities. This opportunity has opened doors for me to continue promoting health education and utilizing my skills in the communities around me. Through us, the Fellows, Dr. Schweitzer’s message is echoed throughout the world and his legacy lives on.
Caroline Njogu is a Kate B. Reynolds Schweitzer Fellow in North Carolina. Click here to read more about The North Carolina Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Njogu it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that impact the health of vulnerable communities. To make a gift to The North Carolina Schweitzer Fellows Program in honor of Njogu’s efforts to improve refugee health, click here.